Rebels in Arms: The Irishmen of Bunker Hill

At Least 22 Native Born Irishmen Died for the Cause of American Liberty on the Slopes of Breed's Hill

June 17, 2004

By Peter F. Stevens

The rattle of drums pealed through the sultry air of June 17, 1775. As the sun glinted off bayonets, the Redcoats formed columns and tramped over heaps of fallen comrades for a third time up the slope of Breed's Hill.

Behind a rail fence, a redoubt, and a breastwork, the Rebels waited, pouring their last powder and ramrodding their last musket balls down their muzzles. Many colonists lay sprawled amid the defenses, homespun shirts stained with blood, screams and groans echoing across the slope. But on the grass in front of the fortifications lay many more British regulars, hundreds of them, a carpet of red coats and white crossbelts.

Historians would assert that the Colonial farmers, tradesmen, lawyers, and physicians taking on the vaunted British Army were "wholly English." These scholars would neglect to mention that men named Callaghan, Casey, Collins, Connelly, Dillon, Donohue, Flynn, McGrath, Nugent, Shannon, and Sullivan fired "at the whites of their [British] eyes" at the Battle of Bunker Hill (actually Breed's Hill). Although generations of American writers would cling to their myth that only Patriots "of pure English blood, with a small fraction of Huguenots and a slight mingling...of Scotch Irish" taught the British Army a harsh lesson at Charlestown in 1775, Irish volunteers helped to man the defenses there - and "the sons of the Green Isle" shed their blood for the dream of American Independence.

On the slopes of Breed's Hill, at least twenty-two native-born Irishmen died for the Rebel cause. Irish-American historian Michael J. O'Brien was the man who first punctured the myth that no Irishmen stood shoulder to shoulder with the Rebels. Through painstaking research, he discovered that forty-one companies of Patriots at Breed's Hill counted Irish casualties in their ranks.

O'Brien next targeted the "Scotch-Irish" fallacy, used by scholars to obscure the role of Irish in the American Revolution. By defining Rebels with unquestionable surnames as "descendants of the Scotch and English" who had subjugated the North of Ireland, eminent Anglo-American writers inaccurately hid the true lineage of men whose bloodlines were "Clanna na Gael," pure and simple.

As O'Brien reveals, many men who fell at the Battle of Breed's Hill were Irish-born. Unlike his predecessors, O'Brien credited both the Irish and Scottish Patriots as separate entities and harangued scholars for "drawing an Iron Curtain around the Irish, who… brought to America burning memories of the treatment their people had received at the hands of the English, and so were glad of the opportunity to take part in the fight." And fight they did.

On June 17, 1775, 2,500 British Regulars piled into longboats and were rowed to Morton's Hill as warships and batteries atop Copp's Hill bombarded the Rebels dug in on Breed's Hill. The British had already set Charlestown ablaze, and from the colonists' bastions, Daniel Callaghan, Thomas Doyle, and scores of fellow Irishmen peered at a frightening sight. Down Morton's Hill streamed masses of Redcoats, regimental colors hoisted above hundreds of tri-cornered caps and Grenadiers' "shakos" (high, gilded hats). The British drums boomed ever louder as the scarlet ranks formed assault columns in a meadow fronting Breed's Hill.

In the ranks of the Irish-born defenders were a number of deserters from British regiments. In Ireland, "press gangs" had kidnapped many young men, hauled them, bound and gagged aboard troop transports, and informed them that they had "enlisted" in King George III's service. Once in Boston, many Irish soldiers deserted at the first opportunity and eagerly joined the Rebel militia to strike back at their British oppressors. Because British officers posted rewards for Irish deserters "now with the Rebels," many of the refugees changed their names. But at least seven Irish deserters fought under their own name at Breed's Hill. Typical of them was Thomas Kincaid, "in Ireland a victim of the much-dreaded press gangs." He had "deserted the British flag and on offering his services to the Americans…was made a sergeant." Another Kincaid, fourteen-year-old Samuel, Thomas's son, had joined his father in America, and on June 17, 1775, stood behind the American defenses as a drummer boy, willing to die alongside his father for their adopted cause. The elder Kincaide and other Irish deserters proved welcome additions to the Rebels, for the Irishmen knew their way around muskets and cannons.

Now, on that sultry June day, the Kincaids watched as the redcoats surged in perfect order up the slope. They pressed forward, their bayonets flashing, their drums pounding. Suddenly Kincaid, Doyle, and the other Rebels squeezed their muskets' triggers, and the muzzles' din muffled the drums. Smoke shrouded the hill. As it slowly dissipated, the redcoats were retreating, dead and wounded heaped along the grass. The Rebels' cheers followed the British down the hill.

As the Redcoats reformed columns, the Patriots' cheers faded. Again the scarlet lines came on in perfect order to their drummer boys' cadence. For a second time the Rebels held their fire with admirable discipline and then unleashed murderous blasts. The Redcoats staggered back down the hill, hundreds more screaming, writhing, or silent across the slope.

Believing the battle over, more rounds of cheers erupted from the defenders. Then, slowly, through gaps in the smoke, the Rebels spied the Redcoats reassembled. The cheers ceased, and with the Patriots' realization that they were down to their last shots, scores of men began to edge away from their posts.

Once more the British drums pealed. The columns marched over prone comrades up the slope. The Rebels' muzzles barked and felled dozens more Regulars. But this time the Redcoats swarmed over the defenses and plunged bayonets into the reeling Patriots. Daniel Callaghan and Thomas Doyle "literally flung themselves in the path of the advancing forces" to match bayonet thrusts with the British and perished in the melee of metal. Many of their fellow Irishmen also died in that final British charge; however, scores of others escaped to battle the Redcoats on other fields.

The Rebels had littered Breed's Hill with 228 British dead and 828 wounded - a staggering casualty rate of forty-two percent (ten percent is considered high). And men with such names as Callaghan, Doyle, Kelley, Ryan, Donohue, and Sullivan had done their part in the Rebels' ranks.

Despite countless writers who tried to bury the exploits of these Irish-born men who fought and died at Breed's Hill, the truth is emblazoned upon the Memorial Tablets of the Bunker Hill Monument. There, alongside the names of Yankee Rebels are those of their Irish comrades in arms.

This article originally appeared in the June edition of the Boston Irish Reporter, a sister publication of the Dorchester Reporter.